An unusual showdown unfolded on the Senate floor late Tuesday night during a debate over Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who opposes confirming Sessions as the nation’s top law enforcer, tried in vain to read a 1986 letter written by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., in which she assailed Sessions’ record on civil rights, The New York Times Reports. At the time, Sessions had been nominated for a post as a federal judge.
But Republicans formally denied Warren the opportunity to recite the entire letter, citing the arcane Senate Rule XIX, which stipulates that “No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” (More on the curious wording used throughout the entire rule at the bottom.)
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after another Republican senator, Steve Daines of Montana, had reminded Warren of Rule XIX, and told her to “take her seat.” Watch a portion of the exchange below.
According to CNN, many who were watching the showdown live saw gender dynamics at play and McConnell’s “Nevertheless, she persisted” phrase became a rallying cry on social media, along with the hashtag #LetLizSpeak.
In the end, Warren, tenacious though she had been on the Senate floor, was shut down by her Republican Senate colleagues. Perhaps McConnell overlooked the power of social media, however. After the showdown concluded, Warren took to Facebook where she posted a video of herself reading King’s letter in full. The video has more than 6 million views as of this writing, making it more of a cultural sensation than it would’ve been had she simply been allowed to read it uncontested on the Senate floor — a case of a phenomenon known as the Streisand Effect. Watch the video of Warren reading below, in which King accused Sessions of using “the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.” If you’d rather read the entire letter, USA Today has it here.
And about the wording of that rarely-invoked Senate Rule XIX: Click through and read it in full, as well. You’ll notice the rules are written using only male pronouns. For instance, the very first passage of the rule reads, “When a Senator desires to speak, he shall rise and address the Presiding Officer, and shall not proceed until he is recognized, and the Presiding Officer shall recognize the Senator who shall first address him.”
Aside from being in desperate need of some updating, does the wording suggest that, because Warren is a “she” and not a “he,” she was never actually in violation of the rule to begin with? We’re not Senate rules experts, but just saying — a litigious expert on the nuances and inner-workings of the Senate might be able to make that argument.